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Despite Long Layoff, Force Still With Galaxy

March 30, 1997|BILL PLASCHKE

The drumbeat returned Saturday, steadier, stronger, more improbable than ever.

The drumbeat returned and, with it, a stadium full of unexpected riches, a game of forgotten surprises.

Remember the Galaxy?

It is back.

So, too, are 53,147 of its fans.

On possibly the worst Saturday of the spring for a sporting event that is not baseball or basketball, our only professional football team opened its doors and clenched its teeth.

The team was last seen blowing a two-goal lead to D.C. United with 17 minutes remaining in the rain-drenched inaugural Major League Soccer championship game last fall. The team's off-season publicity campaign was as invisible as its last minute defense.

Did the fans remember? The team drew astounding numbers in its first year--averaging more than 28,000--but would there be a sophomore jinx?

"It was white-knuckler time," said Danny Villanueva, Galaxy president.

And then it was slack-jaw time.

Into the Arroyo Seco they came, as early as three hours before kickoff, with horns and whistles and Galaxy tattoos on their foreheads.

They stood in ticket lines that stretched the nearly from the goal to midfield. They crammed understaffed gates in lines that lasted 30 minutes.

There was Final Four basketball on the television. There was exhibition baseball in Anaheim. There was Easter preparation in the homes.

Yet by 8 p.m. the Rose Bowl was thundering with a distinct Los Angeles sound that had not been heard here in nearly six months.

The drumbeat was back.

And once again, they did everything a good soccer crowd does.

They cheered a pregame dance team when it took the field, but cheered louder when it got out of the way, only to be seen again for a few moments at halftime.

They cheered the unveiling of a new mascot until they actually saw it. It was a guy in pajamas wearing a phone booth on his head. Then they just stared. He, too, departed from field when the game began.

"We are not going to mess with the tradition of soccer in any way," said Jay Howarth, entertainment director of the Galaxy. "My father is British. I would be hung from a family tree."

We mentioned Howarth because she made a special announcement before the game.

"There's something we're not going to do this year, and I'll give you a hint," she said. "It starts with M and it rhymes with the Macarena."

The loudspeakers, instead, blared "Tequila." The crowd roared. Way cool, this Howarth.

But mostly they cheered a Galaxy team which had no excuses for the ensuing shootout loss after a scoreless tie to D.C. United.

With the additions of creator Martin Machon from Guatemala and enforcer Danny Pena from Culver City, the Galaxy should be the best team in the league.

It should dominate defensively--which it did Saturday--and find way to score at least once game--which they didn't.

Besides, the team finally has the one asset that every average soccer fan covets, the type of player appreciated even by those who think a cultured left foot should be lanced.

A guy with one name.

OK, so it's not a great name, not like Pele, Romario, Bebeto.

OK, so it's Welton.

The 21-year-old Brazilian took a shot about six seconds after he came into the game, which will make him a star in this town.

The only other guy who made a quicker impression was the pregame sky diver whom the Galaxy claimed was making his "first stadium jump."

The announcement may have been intended to heighten the suspense. But have you ever seen about 30,000 people cover their heads at once?

The guy landed on his feet. The same could not be said for the Galaxy, despite a couple of great plays.

I am referring, of course, to a sliding tackle by Pena that knocked Carlos Llamosa into Old Town.

The other was an encounter between the Galaxy's Chris Armas and John Harkes of D.C.

Harkes, angered over a shove, slapped Armas in the face. Armas, proving that this Galaxy team will not lack in smart, simply threw the ball him. With two hands, of course.

Unlike last year, it appears the Galaxy will not back away from big moments. This team seems like the sort that can hold that two-goal lead in the final half hour of the seventh-month season.

The Galaxy outshot D.C. United, 10-4, meaning these new guys and these tough guys need to practice harder at figuring out the object the game.

Maybe the Galaxy should have used Andrew Shue, whose return to the end of the bench this season is another surprise? Nah.

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